There are two primary reasons for decanting a wine: The first is to separate the wine from any solid matter in the bottle, and the second is to aerate the wine to make it more expressive and accessible in the glass. Decanting to remove sediment is less important with wines made today, as modern winemaking techniques virtually ensure a clear wine even years after bottling. There are exceptions, however. The main reason for decanting today is to allow the wine to come into contact with oxygen. This process of aeration allows the wine to “open up” and release its hidden aromas. It is mostly red wines that are decanted, though white wines can also benefit from aeration. A third reason for decanting may be merely aesthetic, as discerning diners enjoy the ceremonial aspect of fine wine service at the table.
In the past, winemaking was not as refined as it is today, and it was important to decant all wines, even those that had only been recently bottled. Most wine made today is fined and filtered, limiting the need for decanting to remove sediment. Mature wines often still need to be decanted to ensure they are clear. This should be done with the utmost care, however, as decanting very old wine runs the risk of ruining its flavour. As old wine is so fragile, its exposure to large amounts of oxygen can turn it flat and dull in a matter of moments. Unfortunately, there are no set rules for when a given wine is too old to decant. It will depend on the region, producer and vintage. If in doubt, it is best to ask the owner or charter guest for their preference or to call your supplier for advice.
Young wines also benefit from decanting, though the aim is not the same. The goal here is not to remove sediment – young wines rarely have any – but rather to aerate the wine. The action of decanting itself will bring the wine into contact with air, softening it, making the tannins less grippy and making for greater harmony overall. If the first taste reveals a tannic, grippy or youthful structure, even inexpensive wines can benefit from decanting. Aerating a young wine several hours before serving it can be highly beneficial. A common misconception, however, is that a wine can be sufficiently aerated just by opening the bottle. This is not the case, as the surface area of the wine exposed to oxygen is too small; only the first few centimetres in the bottle neck will be aerated and not the rest of the bottle.
Decanting for the first time can seem intimidating or complicated, especially in front of guests. It is, however, very simple. To start with, take the wine carefully from where it has been stored, ideally lying on its side in a suitably cool, dark environment. Avoid any rapid movements of the bottle to ensure the sediment stays where it is. If the bottle is old and you anticipate a lot of sediment, let it stand upright for a couple of hours if possible. When the time comes to decant the wine make sure you have everything you need. This includes a good corkscrew, white linen napkin, decanter, a candle and of course the wine. Slowly pour the wine into the decanter with the candle just below the bottleneck so you can see when the sediment starts to come. Then stop pouring and put down the bottle. The wine in the decanter will now be clear and without any solid matter. In older wines it is quite acceptable to have a little sediment in the wine after decanting. This is almost impossible to get rid of unless using a coffee filter, which is simply not permitted in fine wine service! When decanting a young wine for the purpose of aeration, less care needs to be taken when pouring, as there will be no sediment.